Going Global

Understanding Cultural Differences

When marketing abroad, you must adapt to another country's culture and way of doing business. While many foreign businesspeople speak English and are knowledgeable about U.S. business practices, they operate according to their own unique cultural assumptions.

U.S. businesspersons frequently use slang, tell jokes, address one another by nicknames, and express their emotions through facial expressions or hand gestures during a meeting. Their counterparts in western Europe, Canada and Asia, however, are far more reserved. They observe a sense of decorum in addressing each other by using last names and titles, with no casual gossip or joking comments that could make someone feel uncomfortable.

Probably the biggest cultural adjustment for U.S. exporters is accepting how business decisions are made overseas. American entrepreneurs are independent thinkers, quick to make their own decisions. In Asia and western Europe, business decisions require a group consensus and can take months, even years, to finalize. "The process is much slower because these countries view business commitments as long-term relationships, based on mutual trust and respect for the trading partners," notes Judith Starkey, president of The Starkey Group Inc., a Chicago-based management consulting firm specializing in interpersonal relations in a multicultural environment. "Building this trust takes time. So to make the relationship work, you've got to commit to the long term."

Of course, the rules of protocol vary with every country. The best way to guarantee you'll be using the right business etiquette is to read up on a country's social and cultural history. Have your business cards printed bilingually. Use textbook-perfect grammar and avoid slang like "OK" or "for sure." When in doubt, follow your host's lead, adapting your pace and manner to his.

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Going Global.

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